On July 10, 1925 opening statements began in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The case, brought against High School Biology teacher John T. Scopes, brought to the forefront the issue of teaching evolution in schools. John Scopes had introduced the controversial subject in his classroom, a violation of the Tennessee Butler Act. The case caught popular attention and was headed by legal ‘superstars’ Clarence Darrow and the ACLU (for the Defense) and William Jennings Bryan (on the side of the Prosecution, serving an advisory role). The case later inspired the 1955 play (and subsequent films) “Inherit the Wind.”
The trial became a public sensation and focused less on the merits of the law and more on the issue of the role of religion (specifically Christianity) in the public realm. The drama of the case came to a high point when the defense called William Jennings Bryan himself to the stand to testify on the merits of the Biblical evidence that had been presented to the jury.
After eight days of trial, the jury took less than ten minutes to deliberate and found John Scopes ‘guilty’ of a misdemeanor violation of the Butler Act. He was fined $100 (about $1,300 in modern currency). After receiving his sentence, Scopes spoke for the first time in the case:
Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust
Later, the supreme court of Tennessee would set aside the conviction, not on a merit of law but on a technicality – that the jury should have determined the fine not the judge in the case. The decision also effectively quashed the life of the case and the constitutional determination of teaching evolution in classrooms. It would not be until 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, that the Supreme Court would address the controversial issue